|The over-the-top clubhouse sat among the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens -- photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWN4LPSU&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
As the sons of Manhattan millionaires grew to manhood,
membership in at least one—but preferably several—of the exclusive men’s clubs
was expected. Passing the rigid
selection process proved one's good breeding and social status; but most of all
money. None of those qualifications
mattered much, however, if the man were Jewish.
Manhattan society was, for the most part, made up of
Episcopalians with some ultra-wealthy Roman Catholics tolerated (although not
in the ballroom of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor). Despite the staggering wealth of some Jewish
families, only a handful of Jews would manage to wrest memberships in the highly-exclusive
Union or Metropolitan Club, for instance.
And so they established their own private club.
The Progress Club was founded in 1864 and quickly developed
a high-class standing. The New York
Times later said, “In Hebrew society the Progress Club has the same standing as
the Metropolitan in other circles.” By
the 1880s it had established itself in a clubhouse at No. 110-112 East 59th
Street at the corner of Park Avenue. But
that would quickly change. On July 28, 1887 the members sold its building
for $105,000 and spent double that amount--$235,000 to be exact—on the 100-square
foot corner lot on Fifth Avenue at 63rd Street. Newspapers reported that plans were being
prepared for “a $250,000 clubhouse” directly in the center of the developing
mansion district. The total proposed
outlay of $485,000 would amount to a jaw-dropping $11.5 million today.
Alfred Zucker was born in Freiburg, Silesia in 1852 and had
settled in New York in 1883. He busied himself
designing cast iron loft buildings in the area now known as Soho. Now the Progress Club chose the Jewish
architect to design their new home.
By the time the cornerstone was laid on November 28, 1888
work was well underway. The New York
Times promised that, when completed, it would be “one of the handsomest and
most convenient clubhouses in the country.”
“The architecture of the exterior will be pure Italian
Renaissance as adopted in Rome and Florence in the fifteenth century,” said the
newspaper. “The material used in the
facades will be fawn-colored brick, terra cotta of a deeper shade, and
Bellville gray rock.. For the balcony
railings, basement window-guards, &c., ornamental wrought-iron will be
By now the cost of the structure, excluding the plot, had
doubled to $500,000. The members of what
newspapers routinely called the “Hebrew club” seemed determined to match or outdo
the most lavish of Manhattan’s clubhouses.
Five months later the Progress Club hosted its last function
in the old clubhouse. Among the entertainments were
a children’s production of A Midsummer’s
Night’s Dream, and “as an interlude Miss Nellie Williams sang ‘Dere ain’t
no Flies on Me,’ for which she was rewarded with loud applause,” reported The Times the following day. It was
announced that the club would be in its new Fifth Avenue clubhouse by the
opening of the social season.
|Terra cotta drapes like a garland along the parapet -- photo King's Views of New York 1903 (copyright expired)|
By the time the building opened on March 7, 1890 the cost
had risen to a staggering $600,000.
Combined with the cost of the land, the clubhouse cost $21 million in
today’s dollars. The price was
understandable once guests and reporters were shown inside. The New York Times called the clubhouse “palatial.”
|Well-heeled members in evening clothes ascend the grand staircase before the enormous stained glass window on opening night -- Harper's Weekly 1891 (copyright expired)|
The following day the Real Estate Record & Builders’
Guide called it “regal” and “without doubt the most ambitious addition that has
been made to the club-houses of this city since the Union League was opened.” The periodical said “The design of the
exterior is scholarly, straightforward and expressive, and with the
accentuation given by the beautiful carving and terra cotta work the building
is architecturally one of the most successful and interesting that has been completed
in recent years.”
It pointed out the costly finishes: “the wealth of highly
carved wood; wrought iron and brass; the great stained glass windows, one of which
is 22x30 feet; the lavish use of onyx, serpentine and other semi-precious
stones, the large picture ceilings, the ivory enameled walls, the superb
hangings in coral plush and Etruscan gold.”
Everything—without exception—in the new building was custom built to the
designs of Zucker. The furniture, the
draperies, carpets, chandeliers, even the candelabra, were manufactured according
to the architect's drawings.
|Silver chandeliers hung from the elaborate ceiling of the Banqueting Hall -- Real Estate Record & Builder's News, March 8, 1890 (copyright expired) |
Members entered through a great arch on 63rd
Street into a marble-walled vestibule.
At the end of the vestibule was the grand staircase, dominated by a
22-foot high stained glass window at the landing. Downstairs were the oak-furnished reading
room with leather-covered walls and wrought iron chandeliers; and two drawing rooms. One of these was “First Empire” in
style. It dazzled with onyx columns with
gold capitals. On
this floor, too, were the reception room, steward’s office and coat room, and an
oaken dining room.
|The First Empire Room was decorated in gold and white -- Real Estate Record & Builder's News, March 8, 1890 (copyright expired) |
At the second landing was an even larger stained glass
window—30 feet high by 22 feet wide—depicting Progress ascending amid
clouds. The magnificent banqueting hall fully engulfed half of the second
floor. At 90 feet long, 55 feet wide and
25 feet high, the Record deemed it “one of the noblest apartments in the city.” The onyx columns with gold capitals upholding
the ceiling sat on pedestals of malachite.
The ceiling was divided into nine large panels, from each of which were
suspended silver chandeliers. They were
matched by silver sconces on the walls. In
this room was a musicians’ gallery of ormolu gilt.
The ballroom was one floor above and The Record &
Builders’ Guide called its proportions “imperial.” Here Zucker used the new electric light to
full advantage. “The ceiling, which is
supported by the walls only, so that the area of the room is unbroken and the
full effect of its size obtained, is coved several feet in depth and divided by
means of heavy ornamental groins into six recessed panels, the centre of each
panel being formed into a dome, in each of which is a cluster of electric lamps
representing the descending stars of a rocket.
This idea is ingenious and the result excellent—with electric light,
illumination is at last becoming a part of decorations.”
|Zucker pulled out all the stops for the dazzling Ballroom -- Real Estate Record & Builder's News, March 8, 1890 (copyright expired) |
Zucker’s over-the-top décor in the ballroom included female
figures crafted of onyx and ormolu holding the golden candelabra, and nymphs
supporting chains that held back the draperies.
In the cove of the ceiling huge winged female figures wore tiaras of
electric lights. More than 1,000 persons could
comfortably fit into the ballroom.
Also on this floor were the “dainty ladies’ drawing-room” in
white and gold Rococo. The ceiling was
painted with a reproduction of Thuman’s “Amor and Psyche.” On the opposite side of a foyer was the
gentleman’s room. These spaces were
designed so that on grand occasions the entire floor could be opened into one
large entertainment area.
Below ground were six bowling alleys, wine cellars, billiard
room and café; as well as the expected kitchens, larders and mechanical rooms.
The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide summed it all
up saying, “In conclusion, it may be said that from top to bottom the building is
most carefully and artistically planned, the construction is everywhere of the
most substantial and excellent kind, and reflects great credit upon the members
of the club and the architect.”
The critics from The Times and the Record & Builders’
Guide were just two of 1,500 persons at the housewarming. Among the guests who mingled among the potted
ferns and palms that night were names like Rothschild, Bloomingdale, Blumenthal,
and Stein; some of the wealthiest merchants and bankers of the city. Mayor Hugh J. Grant, Governor David B. Hill
and Board of Alderman President Arnold were all invited; but their names did
not show up on the list of attendees.
In his address after receiving the solid gold key to the
building, club President Simon Goldenberg deemed the new building “the finest
club quarters in America.” The following
day The Evening World called the architecture “perfection” and noted “The
decorations are elegant, costly and in the best possible taste.”
Like every other high-end men’s club in the city, the Progress
Club was not without its internal politics and dissension. During the last week of January 1894 the club
staged “a vaudeville entertainment which was being given by the club to its
feminine guests,” as reported in The New York Times a week later. There was a long-standing rule that whenever
women were invited into the clubhouse, smoking in certain rooms was
That evening when J. Murray Danenbaum entered a supper room
as the entertainment was going on, he noticed a member “enjoying a prohibited
cigar.” Indignant on the part of the
women in the room, Danenbaum approached the member and rather sternly reminded
him of the rule. The New York Times said
“The offending member, unmindful of the soft answer that turneth away wrath,
answered in kind and smoked on.” It was
the beginning of a problem far worse than the offending cigar.
Danenbaum plucked the cigar from the man’s mouth and flung
it to the floor. If female guests were put off by the stench of cigar smoke in the supper room; they were no doubt terrorized by the pugilistic threats that were now exchanged by the two
men. Only the intervention of cooler
minds prevented a full-out fist fight, according to reports.
Exactly ten years after the housewarming celebration the
Progress Club announced it had “decided to dispose of its present house at the
northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixty-third Street, and will erect a new
home on a site yet to be selected.” A
club member told reporters on January 8, 1900 that “the reason for the club
moving was simply that its present house is regarded by a majority of the
members as inadequate.”
It took the club over a year to find a suitable property;
but on November 3, 1901 it announced the purchase of three lots at the
northwest corner of Central Park West and 88th Street. Simultaneously it was revealed that
millionaire James B. Haggin had signed a contract for the purchase of the 63rd
Street building. “The reported price in
the sale to Mr. Haggin was $735,000, and he will put up a mansion on the site
costing about $1,000,000,” reported The New York Times.
The Progress Club moved to the West Side and, oddly enough,
James B. Haggin did not build his new mansion; but let the hulking clubhouse
sit empty and dark. Instead, he moved into the lavish Crocker mansion
one block north at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 64th
Street in 1912.
When James Haggin died in Newport on August 16, 1914, the
Progress Club still sat eerily quiet and unused. The following year, on December 11, 1915, the
Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that his estate had sold the
property “to a syndicate formed for the purpose of erecting an apartment house
suitable in every way to the location where it is to be constructed.”
The firm of Starrett & Van Vleck was commissioned to
design the 12-story Renaissance-inspired building. With one apartment per floor, the new
building was marketing what could be termed horizontal mansions. The rents were expected to be about $18,000
to $25,000 per year—about $47,000 a month in today’s dollars for the more
|Starrett & Van Vleck released this sketch of the coming building in December 1915. It survives today. Real Estate Record & Builder's News, December 11, 1915 (copyright expired) |
Before the massive apartment building could rise, the
Progress Club had to come down. The
lavish interiors of onyx columns and ormolu galleries were gone within
weeks. That it ever stood is largely